Sandwiches: A meal you hold in your hand

  • Gruère with Caramelized Onions, Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Spicy Fried Chicken Sandwich, Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Red Wine-Braised Flank Steak with Roasted Peppers, Onions and Gruyère, Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Dan's Reuben, Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Cheesy Kimchi Toastie, Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

  • Silky Omelet Baguette, Wednesday, June 30, 2021. (Hillary Levin/St. Louis Post-Dispatch/TNS)

It is a debate that has been passionately argued by culinary philosophers for centuries: Do sandwiches taste better when eaten standing over the kitchen sink, or when they are picked up from a paper plate?

I am firmly in the kitchen-sink camp. To me, paper plates are almost no better for sandwiches than china plates, which are practically like eating them with knives and forks.

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I spent a lot of time standing in front of my sink the other day when I made six types of sandwiches. All of them were hot sandwiches — that is, each one had to be heated before it was ready to be eaten. Some were relatively easy; some took more time and effort, some were decidedly fancy. All were awfully good.

I began with a spicy fried chicken sandwich, which I modeled on the chicken sandwich sold at Popeye’s. The fast-food chain began selling the sandwiches two years ago, and they immediately became insanely popular.

I began by marinating chicken breasts overnight in a buttermilk brine flavored with a bit of paprika, garlic powder and onion powder. When I was ready to cook, I breaded them in a mixture of flour, cayenne pepper, salt and garlic and onion powders, so both the breasts and the fried breading would be highly flavored.

A little internet research revealed that Popeye’s serves theirs with spiced mayonnaise on a brioche bun, with lettuce, tomato and pickles. The pickles are apparently very important. So I served mine the same way. The pickles, I am happy to report, were key.

The sandwich was simply spectacular, as good as the famous version served at Popeye’s. As far as I know.

Much easier to make, and every bit as intriguing, was a sandwich created by celebrity chef Jamie Oliver, Cheesy Kimchi Toastie. Spicy, salty kimchi, with that unmistakable funk that only comes from the Korean red pepper called gochugaru, turns out to be the perfect foil for the robust richness of sharp cheddar cheese. And the crunchy bits only make it that much better.

The name of the next sandwich I made gives an indication of what it entails: Red Wine-Braised Flank Steak With Roasted Peppers, Onions and Gruyère.

Not only is the flank steak braised in red wine for 2 1/2 hours, red peppers have to be roasted — you could use red peppers out of a jar, but it won’t taste as good — and red onions are grilled in a skillet before you can even begin to assemble the sandwich.

Yet the sandwich is so brilliantly balanced, so deeply satisfying to the soul, that it is another confirmation of the adage that is so often true, that the more effort that goes into cooking a dish, the better it tastes. It is so good that the restaurant that created it, ‘Wichcraft in New York, had to stop selling it because it was too popular and took too long to make, creating a backlog in the kitchen.

I next decided to make a Reuben sandwich my way, which is to say without Russian dressing. I have never understood why people put Russian dressing on Reubens. To my palate, the mayo-ketchup mixture blows out all the other flavors in the sandwich. Instead, I used deli mustard, which is far more sensible and as far as I am concerned is the only worthwhile condiment to go with corned beef. I also used pastrami instead of corned beef, because why not? Either one works especially well with this dish.

My next offering, like the flank-steak one, came from ‘Wichcraft. It’s called Gruyère With Caramelized Onions, and basically it is French onion soup turned inside out, and it’s just as delectable.

My final sandwich was a Silky Omelet Baguette, in which a silky omelet is inserted into a baguette and topped with a simple, quick salsa. Nothing could be easier, or at least not many things. Yet it is versatile, a breakfast you could eat for lunch or dinner or a late-night snack.

It is a sandwich for all seasons, a testament to the fact that you can put pretty much anything between slices of bread and come up with a winner.

DAN’S REUBEN

Recipe by Daniel Neman; yield: 1 sandwich

1 tablespoon deli-style mustard

2 slices rye bread

1/4 pound corned beef or pastrami

1/4 cup sauerkraut, drained

2 to 3 slices Swiss cheese

Spread mustard on 1 slice of bread. Top with corned beef, sauerkraut, cheese and the remaining slice of bread. Heat a skillet over medium-high heat. When hot, add sandwich, top-side down. Cook until bottom is golden brown. Flip and cook until bottom slice is toasted and cheese has melted. Serve with a pickle.

RED WINE-BRAISED FLANK STEAK, WITH ROASTED PEPPERS, ONIONS &GRURÈYE

Adapted from “’Wichcraft” by Tom Colicchio and Sisha Ortúzar; yield: 4 sandwiches

3 tablespoons vegetable oil

1 pound flank steak

1 medium carrot, cut into large dice

1/2 white onion, cut into large dice

2 garlic cloves, quartered

2 to 3 cups red wine

2 large sprigs fresh thyme

2 teaspoons salt, divided

1 red bell pepper

1 large red onion, sliced crosswise into 3/4-inch wheels

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/2 teaspoon sherry vinegar

4 ciabatta rolls

8 slices Gruyère cheese

Preheat oven to 350 degrees.

Choose an ovenproof skillet (with a lid) or Dutch oven large enough to fit the meat in snugly but still lie flat. Add 2 tablespoons of the vegetable oil to the skillet over high heat. When the oil begins to shimmer, add the meat and cook for 5 to 7 minutes on each side, until deep brown in color. Remove the meat and set aside.

Reduce the heat to medium-high. Add the carrot, onion and garlic, and sauté until the vegetables start to brown but are still firm. Return the meat to the pan, and add enough red wine to come 3/4 of the way up the side of the meat.

Add the thyme and 1 teaspoon of the salt. Cover and transfer to the oven. Braise the meat for 2 1/2 hours, checking occasionally to make sure the liquid does not dry out (if it does, add more wine). The meat should be very tender and soft enough to pull apart with a fork. Transfer to a plate to rest and cool.

While the meat cooks, roast the red pepper over a high flame, turning occasionally with tongs, until charred all over. Place in a bowl, cover with plastic wrap and rest 20 minutes. Rub off the charred parts with your fingers (some charred parts are fine) and slice pepper into strips. If you do not have a gas stove, place pepper on a foil-covered baking sheet and place in the 350-degree oven, turning occasionally, until soft and wrinkled all over, about 45 to 55 minutes. Remove and, when cool enough to touch, slice pepper into strips.

Brush the red onion with the remaining 1 tablespoon vegetable oil. In a skillet over high heat, grill the onion — without separating into individual rings — until charred on the outside and slightly cooked on the inside. Place in a bowl and separate into rings. Add the peppers, olive oil, sherry vinegar and remaining 1 teaspoon salt, and mix well.

Strain the liquid the meat was cooked in into a bowl. With two forks, separate the meat into chunky strings and roughly cut them crosswise into 2- to 3-inch pieces. Combine the meat with the juices, and coat well.

Slice the ciabatta rolls in half. Place 1 slice of cheese on each bottom and top half. Arrange the meat on the bottom halves and peppers on the top halves, and place all the roll pieces in the 350-degree oven. Cook until the cheese is melted. Place the top halves on the bottom halves, cut in half and serve.

GRUYÈRE WITH CARAMELIZED ONIONS

Adapted from “’Wichcraft” by Tom Colicchio and Sisha Ortúzar; yield: 4 servings

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 medium yellow onions, halved and cut lengthwise into 1/8-inch slices

1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano or 1 1/2 teaspoons dried

Salt and pepper

16 slices Gruyère cheese

8 slices rye bread

2 tablespoons butter

In a skillet over medium-high heat, add the oil and onions. Add the oregano, and season with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring, until onions turn light brown. Reduce the heat and continue to cook until the onions are soft and golden brown, 30 to 45 minutes. These can be kept refrigerated for up to 1 week.

Place 2 slices of cheese on each of 4 slices of bread. Put 1/4 cup of the onions on top of each, and top each sandwich with another 2 slices of cheese and slice of bread.

Melt 1/2 tablespoon of the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat (if your skillet is large enough to make 2 sandwiches at a time, use 1 tablespoon of the butter). Place 1 (or 2) sandwiches in the butter, and press down lightly until the bottom is golden brown and toasted. Flip and cook other side until the cheese has melted.

CHEESY KIMCHI TOASTIE

Recipe from “Ultimate Veg” by Jaime Oliver; yield: 1 serving

2 slices soft bread

1 1/2 ounces grated sharp cheddar cheese, divided

1 1/2 ounces good-quality kimchi, finely chopped

Spread 1/2 ounce of the cheese over 1 slice of bread. Spread the kimchi over the cheese, right to the edges of the bread. Spread another 1/2 ounce of the cheese over the kimchi, and top it with the remaining slice of bread.

Put a nonstick skillet on medium heat. When it’s hot, cook the sandwich for 2 minutes on each side, until it is beautifully golden. Remove sandwich from the pan. Scatter the remaining 1/2 ounce of cheese on the pan, then place the sandwich back on top. Remove after 30 seconds and turn over onto plate to reveal your handsome cheese crown.

SPICY FRIED CHICKEN SANDWICH

Recipe by Daniel Neman; yield: 4 servings

2 cups buttermilk

1 teaspoon plus 2 tablespoons salt, divided

1 3/4 teaspoons garlic powder, divided

1 3/4 teaspoons onion powder, divided

1/2 teaspoon paprika

Oil, for frying

1 cup all-purpose flour

1 tablespoon plus 1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper, divided, see note

4 small boneless chicken breasts (2 pounds)

1/2 cup mayonnaise

4 brioche buns

2 dill pickles

2 leaves of lettuce, each torn into 4 pieces

1 medium tomato, sliced

Note: If you don’t want it spicy, simply eliminate the cayenne pepper.

In a large bowl, mix together buttermilk, 1 teaspoon of the salt, 1/2 teaspoon of the garlic powder, 1/2 teaspoon of the onion powder and the paprika. Add the chicken breast and refrigerate at least 4 hours or, preferably, overnight.

Pour 1 inch of the oil into a large cast-iron skillet or Dutch oven. Heat oil to 350 degrees (if you don’t have experience, you’ll need a frying or candy thermometer to make sure it is the right temperature). Meanwhile, put the flour in a paper or plastic bag along with 1 tablespoon of the cayenne pepper, the remaining 2 tablespoons of salt, 1 teaspoon of the garlic powder and 1 teaspoon of the onion powder. Shake well to combine.

Remove the chicken from the marinade and place pieces in the bag with the flour mixture. Shake to coat thoroughly, wait 1 or 2 minutes, and shake again. Carefully place the chicken, skin-side down, in the hot oil (you may have to do this in batches). Fry, turning occasionally, until golden brown all over and internal temperature is 165 degrees. For best results, try to keep the oil temperature around 325 degrees. The chicken will be done in 10 to 15 minutes, depending on the size of the breasts. Remove to a plate covered with paper towels or a wire rack over a baking sheet.

In a small bowl, mix together mayonnaise, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon cayenne, the remaining 1/4 teaspoon garlic powder and the remaining 1/4 teaspoon onion powder. Spread 1 tablespoon mayonnaise mixture on top and bottom halves of each bun. Slice pickles into 1/4-inch rounds and cover bottom bun with a single layer of 3 or 4 slices (you may not need all of the pickles). Place a fried chicken breast on each bun, top with 2 pieces of lettuce and 1 slice of tomato. Add the top half of the bun, and serve.

SILKY OMELET BAGUETTE

Adapted from “Ultimate Veg” by Jamie Oliver; yield: 1 serving

1/2 baguette

1/2 cup cherry tomatoes, quartered

1/4 to 1/2 jalapeño pepper, thinly sliced

Salt and pepper, to taste

1/2 tablespoon olive oil

1/2 tablespoon red wine vinegar

2 large eggs

1/2 tablespoon butter

1/2 ounce sharp cheddar cheese, grated

1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives

1/2 teaspoon curry powder

Slice the the baguette in half, lengthwise. Place the cherry tomatoes and jalapeño in a bowl with a pinch of salt and black pepper, along with the oil and vinegar. Toss together well, and set aside.

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Beat the eggs well. Put a large, nonstick skillet on high heat and, after 1 minute, add the butter. When the butter has melted, pour the eggs into the hot pan and quickly swirl to cover the base. Scatter over with the cheese, chives and curry powder.

After a total of 1 minute in the pan, the eggs should be just set (they should be yellow, not golden brown). Angle the pan and use a spatula to swiftly roll up the omelet and stuff inside the baguette halves. Top with the salsa.

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